The U.S. Surgeon General says mentoring is one solution.
“There is no doubt that much progress has been made in the past 100 years with regard to minorities’ representation in the medical profession,” said report co-author IIana Suez Mittman, Ph.D. “Unlike the turn of the twentieth century, currently there is heightened awareness to issues of injustice and inequity, where discrimination is unlawful and minorities are able to attend any medical school of their choosing.”
Mittman is director of health policy research at the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies in Washington.
The journal article details the history of minorities in medicine before a 1910 Carnegie Foundation report by Abraham Flexner and what has happened since its publication.
When Flexner evaluated 155 medical schools from 1908 to 1910, seven black medical schools were in operation. His report’s recommendations, however, led to the closing of all but two of the schools—during a time when African-Americans were refused admittance to white medical institutions.
Flexner’s report also led to an adoption of admission standards that made medical school unattainable for African-Americans for decades.
For the next 50 years, the two black universities that remained opened educated three-quarters of the countries’ African-American doctors, but they were not able to enroll in all U.S. medical schools until 1966. During the 1950s and 1960s, while African-Americans made up 10 percent of the U.S. population, they were only 2.2 percent of physicians.
In 2008, African-Americans, Hispanics and Native Americans made up more than a third of the U.S. population but only 8.7 percent of physicians and 15 percent of enrollment in medical schools.
“We need to be mindful that minorities are still vastly underrepresented in the medical professions when considering their representation in the population,” Mittman said.
She added that minorities still make up only a small proportion of medical school faculty and “are almost nonexistent among tenured professors in academic medicine.”
Newly appointed U.S. Surgeon General Regina Benjamin, in fact, has called on the nation’s health leaders to help improve these statistics by becoming mentors for young people interested in medicine.
“It is so important for young people to have mentors that encourage them to find their passion and to make a difference with their lives,” the Surgeon General said in an e-mail response to the findings. “I am forever indebted to my mentors who taught me how to impact lives through direct patient care, as well as policy at the federal, state and local levels. Having minority health leaders serve as mentors will go along way in encouraging our youth pursue careers in medicine.”
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Academic Medicine serves as an international forum to advance knowledge about the principles, policy and practice of research, education and patient care in academic settings. This monthly journal of the Association of American Medical Colleges is available online at (www.academicmedicine.org)
Sullivan LW, Mittman IS. The state of diversity in the health professions a century after Flexner. Academic Medicine 85(2), 2010.